Did you participate in last week’s designated “Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day”? While it may not have the visibility of Groundhog Day or the appeal of National Doughnut Day (the first Friday in June), you might have seen an article promoting it in the Wall Street Journal. Lenore Skenazy, who conceived of the day, is an outspoken advocate of raising “safe, self-reliant children (without going nuts with worry)”.
Having undergone my own, very minor firestorm when I made positive comments about teenager Abby Sunderland’s solo boat trip, (see Outrage and Split Opinion) I wasn’t surprised when Lenore’s article precipitated vehement, opposing letters to the editor. As Lenore regularly highlights in her blog, Free Range Kids, media preoccupation with tragic stories has led to a cultural mood of fear. While acknowledging that horrific things do sometimes happen, she, rightly in my opinion, posits that living in a climate of fear, hovering over our children and restricting their independent movement has severe negative repercussions as well.
Right now, that’s easy for me to say. I have no eight year olds to send to the park or eleven year olds whose maturity I need to gauge to decide whether a babysitter is necessary or not. I do have vivid memories of panicked thoughts the first few times my husband and I did leave our children home alone and of forcing myself to be calm when my ten year old daughter and her similarly aged friend circumnavigated our island by bicycle. There were a myriad of other times when I tamped down my concerns and allowed my children to roam.
In addition to a media that thrives on bad news we have a litigious society which stresses that when bad things happen someone must be blamed. We also have a political atmosphere which encourages government officials to manipulate tragedies providing them with even more press. Even technology undermines parental fortitude. Our daughter did her multi-hour bike ride in pre-cell phone days. The same trip today would be less unnerving for me not only because she could call if there was a problem, but I would probably ask her to check in regularly. The fact that you can be in touch breeds a need to be in touch. Unfortunately, that very ability to instantly communicate would subtly negatively impact the adventure and growth opportunity of such a trip.
We all have different definitions of the word hovering, based on tangibles and intangibles such as where we live, experiences we’ve undergone and our own psychological make-up. One of the reasons my husband and I chose to raise our children where we did was to provide as safe a place as we could for their activities. There were and are no guarantees, but even if we (o.k., I) were somewhat nervous when our kids played in the wooded acres near our home for hours without adult supervision, we had shouldered the responsibility of picking a location that we could reasonably assume to be safe. I was not so sanguine about other pursuits. Despite having full confidence in my son’s maturity and prowess, and recognizing that it filled a psychic need, I used every guilt-inducing tactic I could summon to encourage him not to ride a motorcycle. And the fact that he was an adult in the eyes of the law didn’t lessen my interference.
All is not lost if you missed “Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day,” or were wary of participating. Over the summer you can slowly disengage from your child’s activities so that by the time “Collect Rocks Day” rolls around on September 16, you wait calmly at home while your child fearlessly and independently celebrates.